Kaktovik mourns burned school; workers were thawing pipes before the blaze

A fire burns at Harold Kaveolook school in Kaktovik the morning of February 7. (Melvin Jack Kayotuk)

Wayne Kayotuk says he brought his son to the gymnasium at the Harold Kaveolook School in Alaska’s North Slope community of Kaktovik on Thursday night.

It’s a pretty routine activity for a lot of Kaktovik residents, he said. The gym is one of few places kids can exercise and play.

“When I brought my son there and let him play, I could smell something in the air,” said Kayotuk, the fuel manager for the village. “But I thought it was just smoke from the landfill burning.”

That was at around 6 p.m. A few hours later, by about 8 p.m or 9 p.m., the building was on fire, Kayotuk said. By midnight it was engulfed in flames.

According to city clerk Katheryn Aishanna, officials had a heater on at the school to thaw frozen pipes, and the heater may have ignited the fire.

Volunteer firefighters from the North Slope village hub Utqiagvik flew in early Friday morning to assist first responders, Aishanna said. She wrote that Kaktovik mayor Amanda Kaleak says the school is a “total loss.”

“As I look out my window, the smoke is still going. It is still burning, as it has been very hard for firefighters to maintain, their equipment, hoses, air tanks keep freezing up and there is not much they can do in our freezing temperatures,” Aishanna wrote in a message just after 10 a.m. Friday.

Aishanna says the middle and high school sections of the school were destroyed in the fire, as well as the new and old gymnasiums, the library, kitchen, swimming pool and maintenance shop area. As of Friday afternoon, responders were trying to let the fire burn out as they keep it contained.

Related: As newly-renovated Kaktovik school continues to burn, villagers express shock, officials say it’s ‘a total loss’

In a Facebook message posted at about 3:30 a.m., the borough wrote that everyone had been evacuated from the school and fire departments were trying to contain the fire.

Borough Mayor Harry Brower Jr. said there were no injuries to report. He said the weather, which dipped to 35 degrees below zero, made fighting the fire difficult for first responders. Western winds between 16 and 18 miles per hour also hit the community all morning.

It’s currently unknown where the roughly 60 students at the school will continue their classes. The next largest public building in town is the City Community Center.

Local residents posted video and photos of the fire, showing tall bright orange flames across the dark early morning sky.

Kaktovik resident Marie Rexford says the whole town is feeling immense sorrow.

“A lot of the community members are crying,” Rexford said by phone. “Our kids got no more school. How long is it going to take to build our school?”

The school was a gathering place for the 250-person village, Rexford said, and it was connected to a recently-opened $16 million basketball gymnasium.

“We lost a community place,” she said. “It’s where everyone goes to for their gym nights. What are they going to do now? What are the kids going to do now? What is the community going to do now?”

“I’m in shock and in disbelief even though I see the videos and pictures. So many memories, so many,” wrote resident and teacher Flora Rexford on Facebook. “I will never get to walk the halls or get to replace what has been lost. So glad there’s no one hurt, but I grew up in that school, it’s my life and my home.”

As locals contemplate the next steps for the students and their families, fuel manager Kayotuk sees one silver lining.

“I’ve got a direct fuel line going there and I was scared that… Holy smokes! If that breaks, I’m going to have a big fuel spill on my hands,” Kayotuk said. “But we got lucky. The fire didn’t even char the paint off the fuel tanks. So we were thankful for the little parts.”

Despite the heavy losses to the school, the elementary wing and teacher housing were saved by firefighters. That includes the original school emblem with the Rams mascot from the 70s, when Katheryn’s mother Alice Aishanna was a student.

“At the original school that we went to, that was the only part of the whole school that was there before they started adding it on,” Aishanna said. “So I’m glad they saved that part.”

Kaktovik is the easternmost village in the North Slope Borough, about 50 miles north of the Brooks Range. It’s the only village within the boundaries of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Reporter Nathaniel Herz with Alaska’s Energy Desk contributed reporting from Anchorage.